It is the spirit behind the action that counts, I was thinking as Jane navigated Saturday night Bay Bridge traffic into San Francisco. For we have had quite a marvelous, yet strange, afternoon at the Berkeley Repertory. The Knee-High Theatre is visiting from Truro, Cornwall, with a production of a Grimm fairy tale, The Wild Bride. They take on anything, these people. And their secret, if there is one, is that they are operating on a different level. This is my only conclusion. Does this one result of developing theater in a Cornish barn? Something about it works. And read the program. The bio of the play’s lead briefly mentions his Guildhall training but mostly stresses his organic farming. Expanding, by the way, having acquired a couple of additional acres. If the troupe’s ingénue seems unusually malleable, that’s because her last stop was not the West End but Cirque du Soleil. They are all from somewhere else, these people, in terms of the stage world. Which accounts for…whatever I am trying to account for. As for the other people in the story, the larger story, well accounting for them is more difficult, but no less important. Let us start there.
I invited a couple of young friends, thirtysomethings or late twentysomethings, hard to say, to The Wild Bride, thinking they were bound to enjoy some theater. I was wrong, quite wrong. They found the experience rough, harsh and perhaps a bit shocking. Which fits into the bigger story, the American national story, let us say, in ways that still have my head spinning.
There is so much theater out there to choose from, so many traditions and techniques, what makes the director of The Wild Bride select a bit of Brechtian this or some of expressionistic that? The spirit, that is the thing. This woman, Emma Rice, lives an observed life, this is clear. She has not only a respect for legend and tale, but a firm grasp. I only wish my own grasp of mythology and folktale was up to the task of explicating the production. But it simply isn’t. I will say that certain things ring a bell. The play begins with and is animated by the Devil. He is there from the first, and that fact alone either resonates with a certain view of life…or it doesn’t. In my case, this rings true as crystal. The devil at the crossroads actually describes the opening…a situation that sounds a distant bell, devils turning up at a crossroads in more than one tale, I think. But I confess I’m not sure. And it doesn’t matter. The distant bell gets rung…a deep reverberation…all that is important.
In her program notes, actually an interview, Emma Rice says it best. The Grimm tale is about all of life. Thing is, one has to have lived a bit of life to understand what she means. Moreover, one has to observe what one has lived. And this is the marvelous thing about theater. She keeps trying to get to the core, what is at the heart of things, the story, the big one, unfolding in the background.
There is an even bigger, that is to say incomprehensible, story unfolding in these United States. I understand it from my perspective or think I do. But in discussing the play with the younger friends who joined us, it was clear that my understanding had its limits.
It is a savage story, The Wild Bride, involving the chopping off of hands, the kidnapping and implied abuse of a young girl. No wonder that there are certain Grimm fairytales that adults have always deemed too grim for kids. Who knows if they are right or wrong, these adults? In any case, it is this child versus adult perspective that probably holds the key to our different reactions to the play. There are moments in the story that depict highly stylized sex, others that symbolically portray the tale’s mayhem-ridden plot. For example, to fulfill one of the Devil’s requests, the title figure must be proven dead…and this demands the delivering of her tongue and her eyes. To comply with this request, the bride’s distinctly less wild husband substitutes the tongue and the eyes of a fawn. The stage version of the latter being a wireframe puppet deer operated by a very visible human…the ripping out of tongue and eyes represented by red dangling ribbons. Yet we feel it viscerally, this highly stylized stage reality of violence. Somehow we feel it more strongly than the on-screen blood in the typical feature film or TV drama.
On stage, or at least on this stage, we get to the spirit. The play’s spirit has gotten to us. The Grimm brothers’ story has gotten to Emma Rice. An oral rendition of early 19th century folktales got to the Grimms. Life got to the folktale tellers…and we feel some hint of this Ur energy, even this removed, even in a comfortable theater in an American university town. Enough to make someone quite uncomfortable, but in a most productive way.
Making me fear that my young friends may be afraid not only of stage violence but the threat of violence always lurking, without and within. That part of the zeitgeist, that thing that is particularly American but also universally human. Which, and this is the interesting artsy question, rings oddly hollow in much of its banal, mass media representation. Is this due to overexposure?
Or detachment of violence from story, that quality that some term ‘gratuitous.’ Which insulates harsh and cruel experience from that big story, the human story. And this is the odd thing about great theater, the sharing of a universal narrative. How it is impersonal, the character of the wild bride being played at various times by three different actors, sometimes spoken, sometimes danced, sometimes mimed. The actions of one character occasionally performed by another. And yet it is deeply personal for, it touches a shared note. And it is the hearing of that note together that makes this what it is, a ritual as much as an entertainment. With the happy discovery that one does not remotely preclude the other. And perhaps one cannot exist without the other, not really. Which is why it’s a play and a revelation, and even stuck in traffic I cannot get the thing out of my mind.
Problem is, the play had an ending. And the larger story, the two younger people who did not enjoy their hours in the theater at all, it still goes on. Which is fortunate. Their story’s ending will occur long after my own, but I’m still concerned about the plot. There are only so many plots, after all. One of the many discoveries of the Brothers Grimm, I suppose. In a society that does not know its own myths and therefore crudely enacts them, often in the most frightening ways, it is easy to be lost. Actually, it is inevitable. Just not all the time. And for a few hours in Berkeley, Jane and I were in that other time, mythic time, timeless time.